Fri, Jun. 21, 2002
San Jose Mercury News

Salt pond deal progress seen
Senator lauds `good start' but says appraisals should be released and cleanup must be ensured

By Paul Rogers  Mercury News

SACRAMENTO - A proposed $100 million deal for the public to buy thousands of acres of industrial salt ponds along the San Francisco Bay shoreline from Hayward to Redwood City to restore as a wildlife refuge is off to ``a good start,'' but several substantial changes have to be made, an influential Bay Area lawmaker said Thursday.

Before the state approves funding for the landmark deal by a December deadline, for instance, state lawmakers must be allowed to see appraisals of the property that have so far been kept confidential, said state Sen. Byron Sher, D-San Jose, during the first public hearings on the proposed sale. The owner of the salt ponds, Minneapolis agribusiness giant Cargill, also must do more to guarantee cleanup of any toxic salts, metals or chemicals before the state and federal government takes ownership, Sher added.

``We've made a good start,'' Sher said. ``Cargill wants to sell, and the state wants to buy. But the devil is in the details.''

Last month, Gov. Gray Davis and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced general terms of a deal in which Cargill would sell 16,500 acres of salt ponds to the state and federal government. A familiar sight to thousands of airline passengers flying over the bay every day, the red and orange ponds are used to crystallize road salt, table salt and pharmaceutical salt.

Some date back to the 1850s. Their colors come from naturally occurring algae in the saline waters. The ponds have been coveted for decades by biologists and environmental groups, who see them as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-create tidal marshes not seen in more than 100 years around the South Bay, restoring habitat for birds, ducks and fish. Such a massive eco-project would represent the largest wetlands restoration ever attempted in the West, eclipsed only by efforts to restore the Florida Everglades and Chesapeake Bay.

Under the terms of the deal, the state would pay $72 million, the federal government would pay $8 million and four private foundations -- Hewlett, Packard, Moore and Goldman -- would pay $20 million toward the price.  Restoring about two-thirds of the ponds to tidal marsh and leaving the rest as salty ponds for diving birds could cost another $250 million and take 30 years.

Sher, a veteran legislator and professor of contract law at Stanford University since 1957, was appointed this month by state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, to serve as chairman on a special committee overseeing the deal.

During a 90-minute hearing, Sher politely but systematically picked through details of the ``framework agreement,'' a six-page document negotiated earlier this spring by Cargill officials, Feinstein and California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols.

Sher made a list of about half a dozen items he wanted to see altered before Sept. 16, the initial deadline that Cargill, Feinstein and Nichols had set to finalize a purchase plan. The property would change hands Dec.15, unless state legislators hold it up or demand changes that would cause Cargill to back out.  The bulk of the land would become part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, based in Fremont.

After the hearing, environmentalists and Cargill said Sher's review -- similar to a role he played on the 1999 Headwaters Forest deal for state purchase of ancient redwoods in Humboldt County -- at this point is not enough to kill the deal.

``Overall I think it was encouraging,'' said Cargill spokeswoman Lori Johnson. ``We think it is a good deal, and the more people know about it, the more excited they will be.''

The properties were appraised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for $243 million. If the $100 million sale goes through, Cargill probably would ask the Internal Revenue Service for a $143 million tax credit.